Best Debate Topics for
High School and College Students

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Debate is a part of many high schools and colleges. It may be taught as a class unto itself or it may be an extra-curricular activity which could even garner a varsity letter jacket in some schools. Students with a wide range of interests are encouraged to join debate teams so that they might become better public speakers, logical thinkers, and better citizens in general.

At the high school level, debate is a terrific opportunity for students to engage in a team activity that also stimulates their intellectual selves. They use their debate experience to represent their schools in much the same way that the football or basketball teams do. At the college level, debate teams are a great opportunity for student participation but can also inform their studies and even career aspirations. Pre-law students, for instance, will benefit greatly from the practice in forming and defending positions, including positions to which they may be personally opposed.

This page is all about debate topics and procedures for high school and college students. We hope that it will provide food for thought and encourage readers to engage in healthy, constructive debates.

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Types of Debate Topics

  • Parliamentary Debate:
    In this form of debate, teams defend their thesis in a series of speeches. These speeches are scored by impartial judges and the team with the most points, wins. This form of debate is used in government legislatures and can be used by either high school or college debate teams.
  • Public Forum Debate:
    This form of debate is characterized by a series of speeches that start with a constructive speech, proceed with rebuttal speeches, summary speeches, and then end with a final focus speech from each team. The speeches are timed, and each round is punctuated by a crossfire argument.
  • Spontaneous Argumentation:
    Most often, debate topics are provided prior to the debate itself, thus allowing teams ample time to prepare. In this form, teams are provided their topics at the debate meet and have a limited amount of time to research and prepare their arguments.

What Are the Key Elements of a Debate?

The key elements of a debate are the proposition, the parties, speeches, judges, and the final decision. Debate relies on the proposition to give each team a thesis to research and defend. Teams are usually given one side of a contentious subject that they must defend whether they agree with it or not. The idea is to argue a point free from personal feelings or beliefs.

Each debate is comprised of two parties. One party argues the affirmative side of an issue and their opposition argues the contrary. For instance, one party may argue for representative taxation while the other could argue against it. Debate tournaments may be structured so that the parties have a certain make up in terms of number or other consideration.

Parties express their view on their given proposition by way of speeches. Each team is given a set amount of time and they may incur deductions for exceeding the time constraints. Judges often score speeches based on public speaking ability. Judges are sought who can be impartial and evaluate each team's performance regardless of whether they agree with their conclusions. Since its nearly impossible for judges to be objective, there is rarely, if ever, a single judge. Rather, their final decision is reached by way of tallying each score card. The team with the most points, wins.

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What Makes a Good Debate Topic?

A good debate topic is often in the eye of the beholder. However, when debate organizers consider certain guidelines, the topics they choose are those most likely to stimulate lively debate. For one thing, each topic should have clear sides drawn. That is, a topic that inspires people to take one side or the other. There may be shades of gray on either side, but there is a clear pro and a clear con side to the subject.

Another characteristic of a good debate topic is timeliness. Students are often eager to research and argue over topics that are currently in the news. It can help if these topics are close to their individual experience. This is so that students can become practiced in arguing issues with the least amount of emotion possible. It's also important for students to argue sides of an argument which they may initially disagree with. Again, the educational goal of debate is to have students focus on using facts and reason to override their emotion.

Good debate topics should also be relatively easy to research. This is especially pertinent in a round of spontaneous argumentation. Topics in those rounds should come from current events or hot topics of the day. Thus, supporting facts for either side should be a quick internet search away. However, when it comes to topics given in advance, topics should be more complex and require deeper research and analysis.

How Do You Choose a Debate Topic?

When it comes time to choose a debate topic, students should seek out topics that have two clear pro/con sides, that have ample resources available, and which are pertinent to contemporary times. Strong topics often inspire heated debate and high emotion and thus the lines of dissension should be easy to determine. This not only provides each side with clear parameters for their arguments but also helps them anticipate the arguments they will have to counter.

For those who may be at a loss for suitable debate topics, there are a few pointers that can help them stimulate a great debate. In the search for a good debate topic, current events can be a great help. For even more direction, it's recommenced to review current opinion/editorial writing in local or national publications. Reading through few of these pieces will help debate organizers determine which topics are meaty and complex enough for their debate competition.

When organizers wish to present a more difficult topic for debate, it may be necessary to review current scientific, legal, or philosophical journals for ideas. This approach allows organizers to find the finer points of an argument. Rather than simply ask whether or not drugs should be legal, the topic could focus on whether the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted minorities or not.

Judges should also check their own thoughts and feelings regarding topics. They might be prone to select topics about which they already have set feelings and beliefs. This sort of bias can work against the competitors and should be avoided. Perhaps one way to avoid this problem is for judges to select topics at random, as in choosing topics from a hat. They can then take the chosen topics and evaluate them independently.

Since debate teams are limited by time, judges should take this into consideration. They should select topics that are sufficiently complex to warrant the time allotted. They might even find topics that may, in fact, need twice the time provided. This way, debate competitors will need to discern the most important facts and arguments to focus on.

What are the Basic Rules of Debate?

Each debate shall be comprised of two teams, each presenting an opposing side of an issue or topic. Each team is given equal time to present two or three speeches in which to build their case, and an equal number with which to rebut their opposition. Since the affirmative begins the debate, they also are allowed to deliver the last speech. If there are multiple rounds, teams should be given equal opportunity to argue the affirmative position.

In the event of a cross-examination portion of the debate, questioners must ask clear, direct, and relevant questions. Upon completing a speech, the speaker shall be questioned immediately with no time to confer with teammates.

Judges shall weigh their decisions using only the arguments, facts, and other materials submitted by the teams. If they have other materials that were not addressed, those shall not be part of their decision-making process.

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Debate Categories and Topics

  • Education

    • Should the government subsidize college education?
    • Should prayer be allowed in public schools?
    • Is sex education appropriate for public schools?
    • Is Critical Race Theory a valid subject for college students, or not?
    • Should students be allowed to abstain from taking the Pledge of Allegiance?
    • Was the government's No Child Left Behind policy a success or failure?
    • Should schools teach a religious view on subjects like evolution, the creation of the Earth, and the start of life?
    • Should we amend the current methods by which schools receive tax revenue to ensure that all schools receive equal funding?
  • Politics & Government

    • Does the government have a valid role in reproductive rights?
    • Is it valid to require ID for voting?
    • Should voting districts be determined by way of a computer algorithm or should we stick with the current system?
    • Is a flat tax a fair and equitable way to collect revenue?
    • Would it help to restructure how lottery revenues are distributed in order to benefit districts who play more?
    • When churches are deemed to preach politics, should they lose their non-profit status? Why or why not?
    • What are the pros and cons of voting for a third party?
    • Should we restrict all politicians to a set number of terms, as we do the President?
  • Social/Environmental

    • Should the government be allowed to continue regulating vehicle emissions?
    • Is it lawful for businesses to require their employees and customers to provide proof that they've received a COVID vaccination?
    • Is single-payer healthcare a valid solution to the nation's healthcare crisis?
    • Are abortion restrictions a violation of women's rights and what rights should the fathers hold?
    • Can businesses discriminate against homosexual customers if their lifestyle offends the owners?
    • Is climate change a reality and should we (or should we not) institute laws and public policies to address it?
    • Should government subsidies for things like solar panels, sustainable building, etc. be allowed to persist?
    • Is the United States a nation of many religions or should one take precedent in matters of law and public policy?
    • Does the United States need to institute English as the national language?
  • Science & Technology

    • Should we restrict research and development into artificial intelligence?
    • What are the pros and cons of instituting a nationwide high-speed rail system?
    • What, if any, limits should there be on genetics research?
    • Is crypto currency the future of finance or are they nothing but speculative tools for gambling?
    • What are the pros and cons of a carbon tax? Will a carbon tax make an impact on our environment?
    • Should stem cell research and treatments receive public money?
    • Is nuclear energy a viable option?
  • Economy

    • Should the nation institute policies that address income inequality?
    • Is it appropriate for the nation to allow immigrants to hold jobs?
    • Should the United States nationalize certain industries such as the airlines, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals?
    • What are the long-term harms or benefits when the government privatizes projects it used to oversee?
    • Should the inheritance tax be raised to help support education or other social programs?
    • Do social programs such as welfare, WIC (food stamps,) and unemployment benefits harm or help our economy and its participants?
    • Should crypto currency, such as Bitcoin, be considered an asset and used as legal tender in business transactions?
  • Health

    • Should certain products such as sugary sodas, snack foods, etc. come with special taxes and warning labels?
    • Is it valid to allow alcohol sales in light of its detrimental impact on the nations mental and physical health?
    • If the US legalized all drugs, as Portugal did, would we see an increase or decrease in addition and overdose rates?
    • Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic. How should parents, schools, and government address this public health problem?
    • When it comes to reproductive health and wellbeing, does the is the government have a role or not?
    • Should the government be involved in helping teens access contraceptives such as the IUD?

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